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North Korea under Kim Jong Il

Reviewed by Bertil Lintner

North Korea under Kim Jong Il: From Consolidation to Systemic Dissonance, by Sung Chull Kim. State University of New York Press. 277 pages. $75.

Following North Korea's missile launches and the nuclear crisis, understanding the Pyongyang regime has become a growth industry. Consequently, there is no shortage of books purporting to reveal the secrets and unravel the mysteries of what many perceive as the world's most inscrutable nation, ranging from academic studies of Korean political history to more sensational accounts of the least known and most misunderstood of U.S. President George W. Bush's "Axis of Evil" countries.

But merely branding Kim Jong Il's regime as "evil" gets us nowhere, and few Western academics try to get beyond stereotypes and political patterns which may be totally alien to North Korea's rather unique development. The country has grown from a Japanese colony, to a client state effectively established by erstwhile Soviet Union, and on to what it is today: a fiercely independent country that seems to listen to no one, not even its traditional allies. And why has the North Korean regime survived, and its economic and political system remained basically the same, when other former communist regimes have collapsed, or transformed themselves into pseudo market economies?

Sung Chull Kim, an associate professor of Northeast Asian studies at the Hiroshima Peace Institute in Japan, examines the North Korean enigma in his most recent book, North Korea Under Kim Jong Il, and he argues that North Korea has indeed gone through a systemic change since the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, rose to power in Pyongyang. Under his father, Kim Il Sung, North Korea was more of a traditional socialist state, built on the legacy of the guerrilla war against the Japanese, while Kim Jong Il has departed from orthodox Marxism-Leninism and refined "socialism in our own style" in the context of a strong state. As Kim Jong Il was consolidating power after the death of his father in 1994, he replaced the Communist Party with the armed forces as the most important organ of the state by proclaiming a policy called songun, or "the military first."

This shift was prompted in part by the collapse of Pyongyang's former socialist allies, and hence the resolute determination to prevent any similar, radical changes from taking place in North Korea. It was also prompted by the fact that North Korea had to become self-sufficient in oil and other commodities, which it previously had received at "friendship prices" from the Soviet Union and China. North Korea, which has been a highly militarized society since the Korean War half a century ago, had to be disciplined and streamlined even further. The public panic generated by the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994 and the chronic shortage of food that followed the near-collapse of the North Korean economy in the same decade, convinced Kim Jong Il that he had to make sure the control mechanism of the state was even more absolute.

At the same time, the economic crisis forced North Korea to introduce some cautious free market reforms, which it did in July 2002. The desire to develop the economy is real and, in fact, Kim Jong Il's views of capitalism differ quite significantly from those of Lenin, Sung Chull Kim argues. The founder of the Soviet Union inspired his disciples by arguing that imperialism was the highest form of capitalism, and hence would expand to an extent where it would collapse and inevitably give way to socialism. Kim Jong Il, on the other hand, is prepared to accept that "capitalism, which was once close to collapse because of severe competition among capitalists, is reviving now owing to a shift toward more cooperative relations," to quote the Dear Leader himself.

Thus, Kim Jong Il, the author argues, has "attempted to understand the incessant growth of surrounding countries' market economies in the 1980s, such as Japan's and those of the Four Little Dragons in East Asia, including South Korea." North Korea may not want to become capitalist, but it is resigned to the fact that a world revolution is not imminent and, therefore, it has to establish a working relationship with the capitalist world.

But then how can its provocative postures on its nuclear weapons program be explained? And its lone and aggressive stance towards the rest of the world? Sung Chull Kim gives two seemingly contradictory explanations to these phenomena. On one hand, in the face of U.S. sanctions and rhetoric about an "Axis of Evil," North Korea felt it had to search for means of survival, including heavy military buildup and particularly a nuclear deterrent. The other interpretation "posits that North Korea's provocative posture is attributable to the nation's regime, characterized by Kim Jong Il's monolithic power," the author says. According to this view, "the existing oppressive system has to act aggressively, employing external threats or confrontations as a centerpiece for internal political integration."

Both interpretations have merits, Sung Chull Kim concludes, as a country's behavior pattern towards the outside world is "based on a combination of external and internal factors." A country's security policy is not a simple response to stimuli from the outside, but the consequence of continuous interactions within the system and with its environment.

Sung Chull Kim examines all those factors in detail, and investigates changes in the "political subsystem," as he calls the shifts in priorities and ideological emphasis that have occurred since the death of Kim Il Sung, as no fundamental economic restructuring has taken place in the past decade comparable to that of China and Vietnam. He also analyzes the personality of Kim Jong Il and what personal experiences may have shaped him into what he is today. He finds Mr. Kim to be evidently eager to learn more about the world around him, and notes how he has skillfully sidelined all potential competitors to his rule, including his uncle Kim Jong Ju—Kim Il Sung's younger brother—and his own half-brother, Kim Pyong Il. In the true Confucian tradition, Kim Jong Il, the eldest son of his father, is the rightful heir to the throne.

Despite clichés such as "the Hermit Kingdom" and "the world's last Stalinist state," North Korea is "opening up in its own way," Sung Chull Kim argues. But will it succeed? North Korea's nuclear gambit appears to have misfired and the country now seems more isolated than ever. North Korea's risk-taking policies are hard to understand, but Sung Chull Kim in this well-researched study provides a more profound interpretation of North Korea's seemingly puzzling behavior than can be found in writings by most other analysts.

Many may find his academic style and sometimes complex analyses hard to digest, but I is well worth reading. The Dear Leader may appear bizarre but he is no lunatic. His regime is no doubt one of the cruelest in the world, but it is not about to collapse. Therefore, it has to be analyzed in order to be understood. And that is exactly what Sung Chull Kim does in this book.

This review first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Jan/Feb, 2007

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